Monday, August 18, 2008

Scam Alert: The Hole in the Mezuzah

While checking mezuzah scrolls this morning (they should be inspected for damage twice in seven years, according to the gemara and Shulchan Aruch), I remembered an incident from some time back, when a mekubal (mystic) visited my community and offered to look at people’s mezuzot.

For those who may not be aware: A few itinerant Kabbalalists claim to be able to read the mezuzah scrolls from people' s doors and discern information about what goes on in the house, and particularly about the spiritual challenges facing the inhabitants of the house.

I must admit, right at the outset, that I am skeptical regarding the abilities of mekubalim who advertise such services. I wholeheartedly believe that such skills could exist, but I have a hard time with the idea that those who are capable of this art are hawking their talents in this manner.

And, of course, I must also acknowledge the following story of skepticism, for the sake of full disclosure: After college, I attended NYU’s Courant Institute, seeking a Masters in Computer Science, intending to make aliyah and work in computers. At the same time I entered semichah at YU/RIETS, to keep up structured learning. In my first or second year into this program, my parents showed my mezuzah to a mekubal – who forecast that I pursue the rabbinate rather than a career in computers. I remained in the Computer Science program for a full year after I had already decided to go with the rabbinate, in an attempt to prove him wrong.

So, yes, I am a longtime skeptic. But to return to our story: The visiting mekubal inspected the mezuzot of a certain family, and told them that one of them was no good. He even explained a certain family problem – regarding which he had been given no advance information, but which I think he could have guessed quite easily - on that basis. The family purchased a new mezuzah (not from him).

The family brought me the mezuzah later, for me to examine it. I studied it, and found nothing wrong. They then showed me the problem: They held the scroll up in front of a flashlight, and there was a pinprick-sized hole in the parchment, at the edge of a letter.

This would, indeed, disqualify a mezuzah scroll – the letters must be מוקף גויל, surrounded entirely by parchment. But I had already been checking mezuzot for a decade, and I had never, ever, seen such a hole. Ever since that day I have included, as a routine part of checking, a step in which I hold up the scroll to a light, and I have never seen such a hole – and I’ve checked dozens of mezuzot since that day.

If you ask me, I think the mekubal had a sharp fingernail, or some other means of puncturing the mezuzah. I can’t prove it, of course… but, all the same, if you do decide to show your mezuzot to a mekubal, check them with a light first, and watch his hands very carefully.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for posting this.

    I'm also averse to the popular wave of Mezuzzah-as-Magic-Ornament stories.

    It's hard not to read all sorts of significance into something so symbolic.

    I still remember being shaken, years ago, when we moved and sold our house to non-Jews, and took down the mezuzzot. Inside one of the scrolls from our back door was some kind of insect cocoon.

    The image of a torn home - torn cocoon - upheaval, disorder, etc. disturbed me for weeks.

    It wasn't until I re-framed the meaning of the image (and moved into the new home, with a clean, new claf replacing that one) as the shedding of a previous home - that I was at peace with it.

    Certainly, a guy traveling around with a concealed pin to prick the parchment is a rasha.

    I see him as a psychic or palm reader (also, obviously, to be avoided) who uses keen psychological observations to "magically" know which letter to stick a hole in, in order to give a family insight (and his methods credibility.)

    I can imagine such a person, looking around a teenager's room, seeing signs of rebellion or neglect, and sticking the pin in "v'shinantom l'vonecha", etc.

    Even if the hole were caused by natural causes (say, a tiny bug), what basis is there for drawing conclusions based on the Rorshach-like analysis of the defect? (That's not a rhetorical question: is there a legitimate basis for this?)

    (Aren't we checking them to make sure they're okay, not to find out what was wrong with them?)

  3. JF-
    We check mezuzot to make sure they are still all right (and not inhabited!), that's true. He wasn't selling his services as a halachic check, though; he was selling the mystical "value-added" service. It's just plain rotten, to me.

  4. So, if he wasn't checking them for being valid, but only as the "hocus pocus" tea-leaf reading, is this service even kosher?

    I mean, even if he doesn't poke holes in them, but only interprets the bad ones, doesn't this qualify as some sort of forbidden sooth-saying or superstition?

    How is this in the category of Eliezer waiting for a girl who will offer water to camels?

    Other than catching a potentially posul klaf, of what other practical value is there in his services? To me, this is worse than the red-string stuff, because at least the red string can act as a reminder.

    What we need is someone to come over and check our e-mail and telephone conversations for holes in tact. THAT would be useful.

  5. JF-
    You raise an interesting point. The catch is in determining what is a prohibited omen and what is a permitted omen. There are permitted omens, such as those which have practical relevance to a situation, and those which are used for positive interpretation/application.

    Maybe I'll write on it at some point; it certainly requires analysis.


    "Inside one of the scrolls from our back door was some kind of insect cocoon."

    insects and other animals love klaf (hence a torah is מטמא ידים, iirc?). wrapping the klaf in seran wrap will protect it from insects and the elements and make it last much longer.


    the gist of this post is that you doubt the abilities and intentions of the mekubalim who visit your community. have you addressed your shul and advised them simply to say no thank you when the doorbell rings?

  7. Hi Lion,

    1) The tumah has an additional step: They used to store terumah in the scrolls, and the mice would come for the terumah and end up ruining the scrolls.

    2) I would announce it if that were a regular (or even semi-regular) occurrence, but this is actually the only incident of which I am aware, from the past seven years.

  8. 1) that's what i remembered, except that i thought they stored the hekdesh WITH the scrolls (in the aron?), not inside the scrolls?

    2) i misread the post. i thought mekubalim were frequent visitors in your community

  9. You are correct - with the scrolls, inside the case.

  10. Two things;

    1. It would be fairly easy, using a magnifying glass, to see whether the edges around the hole are pushed out one one side (indicating a pin or other sharp object pushing through to the other side), or an insect, which would leave edges that are even on the two surfaces.

    2. As we all know, it's usually the most vulnerable, under-confidnent, already down-and-out types who are most likely to let such a faker into their homes and convince them of almost anything. Those in the community who are strong and confident can encourage and help the others learn to protect themselves from frauds who would take advantage of them.

  11. ALN-
    Re: #2 - I'd agree, but I think many of us are rightfully less-than-confident when it comes to our own spiritual perfection. The pseudo-kabbalist is able to prey on that sense of insufficiency.

  12. great blog and great post. i specially like this one since i have a sofer blog and love to hear these kind of insights.


  13. I just checked my mezuzah and it had a whole in it my rabbi didn't charge me a penny and did tell me that someone in the family is sick and debting on have the surgery, I told him that was me. So I really believe that it's not a scam.